“She’ll be fine… she’s just feeling a little sad.”
“I’m just upset.”
“Mom’s just acting irrational because of what happened last week.”
“Women just care about good maternity leave benefits because they’re selfish”
“Suicidal people are just seeking attention.”
“He just wants attention.”
“She’s just a janitor.”
“People are just freaking out about Ebola because they don’t understand it.”
“I’m just a beginner.”
“You’re not sick, you’re just being a hypochondriac again.”
“She’s at the nurse’s at camp, but it sounds like she’s just homesick.”
Just has a lot of meanings. It can mean that justice was done, or that someone abides by just laws; that something just happened recently; that someone understood just what you meant; that you just barely missed your flight; or that you’re just angry about one thing among many.
All those things are just fine.
In this article, I’m mostly just concerned with one thing: the way people use the word “just” to subtly minimize, denigrate, de-emphasize, put down, marginalize, other, attack, and ridicule people’s lived experience. And we just need to nix that use.
There are many legitimate uses of the word “just”, but I think you’ll find that, if you just listen carefully, speakers often use it to shade their meaning and to imply, subtly or not, that the person they’re talking about just isn’t worth that much. That their concerns don’t deserve full consideration and that they are irritating or unpleasant and therefore not worth hearing.
Often the “just” serves to simultaneously downplay the concerns and sabotage the reputation of the person. The other day, I overheard someone saying “She’s just asking the waiter about gluten because she needs to lose weight”. Notice how it attacks the person and also ridicules the person’s worry? “She probably just cares about gluten because all the hipsters are gluten-free now”. Never mind that a lot of people have life-threatening conditions like celiac disease and gluten allergy.
It seems like people sometimes throw a “just” in there to give themselves social permission to express a thought that would otherwise be too offensive. I remember a lot of news stories and comments about how the protests in Ferguson, MO were “just a bunch of angry unemployed black people complaining instead of trying to get jobs”. That’s a really offensive statement, and I don’t think we should grant social absolution for it just because someone sticks a “just” in there.
Sometimes people use “just” to imply that something difficult is easy. “Losing weight isn’t hard; you just close your mouth and don’t eat any more calories”. Decades of metabolic science and tons of lived experience disagree, but that doesn’t matter: apparently it’s just a question of willpower.
Nix the just
On some level, it doesn’t even matter whether the speaker intends to minimize the other person’s conditions—because “just” gets used that way so often, people hear the slam even when it’s not there. That makes “just” challenging for good communication: it’s often misinterpreted.
So there are two things to do:
First, pay attention to your language. Notice whether you’re dropping “just” into your speech, and ask yourself whether it needs to be there.
Sometimes you need just the right word, and sometimes it’s just ridiculous to parse language too closely. But a lot of times, the “just” is extraneous, minimizing, disrespectful, or confusing. Take it out.
Second, if you find that you’re habitually tossing “just” into your speech and writing, ask yourself why. Interrogate your use of language and see whether there’s some thought pattern in there that needs to be addressed.
And, if you’re not sure that the word needs to be in there, just nix it.